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Finding Your Voice in Writing
by Susan J. Letham

Question: I recently entered my first short story contest. My story wasn't placed, but I got a checklist to tell me what the problems with my story were. The judge said, my main problem is my writing voice, and she advised me to develop it more.

I was grateful for the feedback, but what I need now is a better idea of what voice is and some pointers to what I need to do to improve it. Can you help?

Response: Congratulations on taking the plunge. That first submission is a milestone in any writer's career.

You've obviously given the judge's comment some thought, because you're asking good questions. A lot of emerging writers find the concept of voice vague and hard to grasp. But once you know what writers mean by 'voice,' it all gets much easier.

You wouldn't mistake Goldie Hawn's voice for Liz Taylor's, even if you couldn't see their faces, would you? And if I were to give you a text to read, you wouldn't confuse a stereotype gangster character's voice with that a Washington lawyer. Not only do they sound different, they also use different kinds of language: words, tone, sentences, forms of address.

Let's look at some examples of different voices:

Example 1: I love the heady cruelty of spring. The cloud shows in the first weeks of the season are wonderfully adolescent: "I'm happy!" "I'm mad, I'm brooding." "I'm happy--now I'm going to cry ..." The skies and the weather toy with us, refusing to let us settle back down into the steady sleepy days and nights of winter.

Example 2: I believe I have some idea of how the refugee feels, or the immigrant. Once, I was thus, or nearly so. ... And all the while I carried around inside me an elsewhere, a place of which I could not speak because no one would know what I was talking about. I was a displaced person, of a kind, in the jargon of the day. And displaced persons are displaced not just in space but in time; they have been cut off from their own pasts. ... If you cannot revisit your own origins--reach out and touch them from time to time--you are for ever in some crucial sense untethered.

Example 3: Privacy in the workplace is one of the more troubling personal and professional issues of our time. But privacy cannot be adequately addressed without considering a basic foundation of ethics. We cannot reach a meaningful normative conclusion about workplace privacy rights and obligations without a fundamental and common understanding of the ethical basis of justice and a thorough understanding of individual and organizational concerns and motivations.

Do you think the examples were written by the same person? Of course not. Anne Lamotte (example 1) is a contemporary US Writer and diarist. Penelope Lively (example 2,) a British author who spent her childhood in Cairo in the 1940s. Laura Hartman (example 3) is an academic who writes about ethics and technology. They are people with very different backgrounds and highly distinguishable voices.

In writing, voice is the way your writing 'sounds' on the page. It has to do with the way you write, the tone you take--friendly, formal, chatty, distant--the words you choose--everyday words or high-brow language--the pattern of your sentences, and the way these things fit in--or not-- with the personality of the narrator character and the style of your story.

The voice I'm using to write this is friendly, familiar, and direct, at least I hope it is. I'm writing more or less the way I would speak if we were chatting face-to-face. When I write poetry, fiction, or articles on social policy, my voice is quite different. I don't talk straight to my reader as I'm doing to you, I move back a step, become more distant, choose other words and different sentence structures.

You might be surprised to know how many beginning writers write out of character, that is, they choose the wrong voice and tone for the purpose they have in mind. Your upscale New England preppie won't chew on her words in a Texas drawl or talk sexy, like, say, a Detroit hooker. A Hickville street sweeper is unlikely to speak like a Harvard graduate, at least not unless he really is a Harvard graduate who has chosen to move to the back of beyond and sweep roads--but that would be story, not voice.

Voice is a reflection of how you (your character) experience the fictional world of your story. A good way to get a character's voice right is to invest some time developing the figure and getting to know its background. When you've done that, tell the story, or a part of the story, out loud as if you were the character speaking.

Let your character (or narrator) tell you the story and listen carefully to how s/he does it. Then start writing it down. If you can 'hear' your character, it's likely that you'll get the voice right. Just leave out the literary touches to begin with, and write a clear, simple story.

 

What you can do to find your voice

Before you can improve your writing voice, you need to be sure you've found it. The most helpful thing you can do to discover your voice is to write as much as possible. Keep a journal. I say 'journal,' because, as a rule, a journal won't tempt you to get literary.

Imagine you are writing your journal for a friend. You might even write it in letter style to make the imagining easier. Write about your day, the things you see and experience, the thoughts that go through your head. Watch the news or read a newspaper and write your thoughts on current events. Writing about your opinions, rather than merely listing your daily actions, is good voice practice, because it forces you to think of new things to say and new ways to say them.

The reason private writing seems easier than fiction is that we don't stop to think too much as we write letters, we don't weight up every word or turn of phrase, we tell the story. That's exactly what you need to do when you write your first story drafts. When you start to worry about the way you're going to sound and start tweaking and fiddling as you go, you very quickly lose your voice. You may simply vanish from your own writing.

Once you have a stock of personal writing, take a look at it, better still, ask a friend to read it through and tell you how you come across on the page.

  • Is your personal writing literary? funny? romantic? poetic? factual? upbeat? depressing? straightforward? flowery? How do you sound?
  • Do you write your mind? Express opinions? Or are your words over-polite and politically correct? Writers get to call intimate interpersonal relations 'sex' and digging implements 'spades.'
  • Is it stilted? Does it flow? Do you sound like YOU?
  • Does your writing have a rhythm?
  • Do all your sentences sound the same? Are they varied?
  • Do you have 'favorite' words and phrases that you repeat often? If so, which ones? Can you find alternatives?

The problem with writing in a voice that isn't yours or a character voice that you haven't got 'into' is that it's hard to stay in style. Instead of writing in a constant voice throughout, your voice style may vary from day to day, chapter to chapter.

That would be a disaster, because part of what a writer aims to do through voice is create the impression of character and story world consistency. Though characters, like people, may have moods, they should still be recognizable as the same people throughout your story. If one of your characters uses street slang, she should stay in that style whether happy, sad, or angry. If you have a word-wielding-know-it-all, he may have his moments of doubt, but he'll be just as clear and vocal about his doubts as he is about his certainties.

If you have a character in the making, let him or her write your journal for you. You'll be able to ease your way into the right voice after a few days of practice.

Writing Exercise

Have your character keep a diary for a few days. The diary should record events related to one of these situations:

  • On day 1, your character starts out in a small town. During the course of the week we learn about his/her move to New York to start a new job.
  • On day 1, your character gets the first of a series of anonymous love letters in the mail. During the course of the week, we learn how she reacts to each new letter and what s/he does (if anything) to find about the sender.

When you move from your journal into your story, just write. Try not to think too much about what you are writing, simply do it. Think of your manuscript as a long, long letter to your reader, and remember that we rarely have problems writing letters and journals. We have to go deep inside to find our real voices, the ones that hide beneath the social veneer, and that means finding out who we are and what we think about the world.

This, by the way, is one of the main reasons that teachers recommend journaling, freewriting and morning pages as part of a writing program. It takes time and a lot of writing to develop a voice, and impatient writers love to skip that part of the process. But writing before you're ready won't cut it in most cases. You run the danger of having no real voice to speak of (or with.)

The exercises I've outlined will set you on the right path to finding your voice and, through that, authentic voices for your characters and stories.

2002, Susan J. Letham

Susan J. Letham is a British writer, multimedia author, and
Creative Writing lecturer. Visit Inspired2Write and sign up
for quality writing classes and competent 1-on-1 coaching.
URL: http://www.Inspired2Write.com
E-mail: susan.letham@inspired2Write.com
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